Big Red: How I Learned Simplicity from a Suitcase.


May 12, Punakha/Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Because I’m not traveling with a group, we are graciously invited in for a visit. It doesn’t matter that the farmer has been out in the fields or that his family is busy with household chores. Everything comes to a halt so that they can welcome us into their home. It’s the kind of hospitality many Westerners have forgotten in the hustle and bustle of our busy lives. The farmer leads the way as we pass cows and goats. We follow him up a ladder with steps made from tree trunks. Their third floor living space is divided into a small kitchen, a main room used as a bedroom, a bathroom, and a room for their household altar. The altar is colorfully painted and decorated with photographs, flowers, beads, rice, cakes, and other symbolic items. It’s adorned with a statue of the Guru Rinpoche, the Buddha, and others I don’t recognize. Small butter lamps are always lit, and water—symbolizing purity and humility—is offered daily.  Just as in the temples, the floorboards have imprints from hundreds of prostrations. The elders in the household often do as many as a thousand of these each day. The family sits on the floor to eat and sleeps there on blankets. This family is lucky; they not only have a stove, but they are one of the few who have a TV. The home is so bare, yet there on the kitchen counter is a TV.

We proceed to the main room where the farmer sets out bowls of flattened maize, toasted rice, and a large silver pot of hot butter tea that rests on a yellow straw basket. His face is weathered and wrinkled. Dirt and dried blue paint are embedded in his fingernails and the cracks of his hands. It’s a delight to be here sharing tea with them.

Where we just buy a box of tea bags and dunk, in this country making tea is quite a process. The tea leaves are first boiled in water for half a day until the liquid gets dark brown. After being skimmed, it is shaken several times in a large cylinder with some fresh yak butter and salt.

When drinking butter tea, you take a sip, and the host refills your cup to the brim. A visitor never drains his cup but allows the host to top it off. Etiquette is always observed so the host will not be offended. If the visitor does not wish to drink a lot, the best thing to do is to leave the tea untouched and then drink it just before you depart. There is also a tea tradition in which you dip your ring finger into the cup and then flick the liquid up in the air three times before you drink. This is considered a blessing. It’s exciting for me to be able to participate in their daily rituals while learning more about the Bhutanese culture.

My mouth is watering as I wait for the butter tea. I am ready for some warmth and comfort. The farmer gives me a toothless grin as he ladles tea into a white, plastic teacup decorated with tiny flowers. I take the cup, expecting a subtle but welcome taste. After several tentative sips, I know they will be my last. The butter makes the tea very rich, very heavy, with a highly unpleasant taste, and it’s barely warm. Ugh, I try not to make a face. As I put my cup down the farmer immediately tops it off. I don’t want to insult him or his family, but it will be a bigger insult if I drink it and proceed to vomit. Watching me closely, Yeshey leans toward me and says, “Don’t worry. It’s fine if you don’t drink any more.” Relieved, I smile a thank-you.

The farmer waves a white cloth over our teacups. I think this is a blessing but soon realize he is shooing the flies buzzing around us. The ornate carved panels that cover the windows are wide-open so it’s an easy entry for all flying insects. Added to the Buddhist belief of doing no harm to all things breathing, and well. With the collection of flies lingering on top of the parched rice and maize, I pretend to eat the tiny amount I’ve taken into my hands while discretely dropping pieces behind me.

I look around this modest—primitive by Western standards—farm dwelling. The dark-blue-painted walls are cracked and peeling. The planked floor is rough and stained. The only furnishings are the bright-red decorative rugs that are threadbare and worn. I ask myself, Does this define happiness? Or is happiness achieved despite this simple existence? Had I romanticized what I expected to see and experience during all those months of planning?

An image of my condo pops into my head. The kitchen with every appliance known to man, and the immaculate counters and floor. Everything in my home is washed and sanitized to the nth degree. My well-stocked fridge and white cabinets full of carefully stored food are a testimony to comfort and security. I have everything a woman could want. No fly would dare knock on my door. How ironic that I’m thousands of miles from home and seeking a glimpse of happiness. What’s wrong with this picture?